History of the Graphical User Interface

The comfortable front-end side of modern operation systems is taken for granted by most users. But it was not always so cloudless, the developers underwent turbulent path of improving and modernizing.

Yes, today we’ll talk about graphical user interface (GUI) and its evolution. GUI is a type of user interface that allows users to interact with computers and hand-held devices preferring to use images rather than text.

There are a lot of windowing systems from different vendors, nevertheless their base elements are quite similar: window, icon, menu, pointing device (also abbreviated as WIMP). In the name of a user’s comfort GUI exploits the skeuomorphism idea of desktop metaphor: the computer monitor is showcased as the user’s desktop, where objects such as documents and folders of documents can be placed; a document can be opened into a window, which represents a paper copy of the document placed on the desktop. The “pointing device” for almost all of the GUI operation systems means a mouse, however the keyboard can also participate in controlling.

GUI replaced such type of interactive user interfaces for computers as command-line interface (CLI), which is totally text-oriented: you need to type special commands in order to issue some changes on the computer. But the precursors of the graphical interface appeared long before CLI went out of fashion. So, let’s start to check the stages of the GUI path through the history.

Harbinger Era

The first thing we can nearly call the graphical user interface forerunner is Sketchpad, a revolutionary computer program developed by Ivan Sutherland in 1963. The author was the first computer scientist who brought the concept of multi-panel windowing system and real-time graphic display into his program.

Graphical User Interface

However, if we take into consideration more GUI-like early elaborations, the oN-Line System goes to the fore. The system was created by Doug Engelbart’s team within the confines of Augmentation of Human Intellect project at the Augmentation Research Center at SRI International. The NLS combined a mouse-driven cursor and multiple windows used to work on hypertext.

The oN-Line System can evoke even more interest, if knowing it resulted into the first GUI, developed by Xerox PARC with the help of people from SRI in 1973. So now we should move to the next paragraph.

Early Era

Alto personal computer by Xerox PARC demonstrated exactly the first GUI. Alto used so familiar to modern users windows, icons, menus, and it was operated with a mouse to issue basic commands. Moreover this computer was the first one that embraced the desktop metaphor.

We can undoubtedly state that all later early developments were directly inspired by the Xerox PARC GUI. Anyway the Alto system was not commercial product, so it’s fair enough other people with better marketing skills brought the best facilities to the next level. The first commercially successful product, which used the GUI, appears to be the Macintosh released in 1984. Apple team unfolded the Alto GUI concept: the desk metaphor was improved; the Macintosh contained a set of desk accessories, such as a trash-can, a notepad, a calculator etc. The early Apple GUI the WIMP principle though.

Graphical User Interface

The picture is taken from Wikipedia.

The other notable GUI-centric systems of the period are Apple Lisa (1983), the Atari ST (1985) and Commodore Amiga (1985). The first GUI Windows 1.0 for MS-DOS was released also in 1985. And the end of the era was brilliantly finished in 1990, when Microsoft Windows put on the market Windows 3.0, based on Common User Access – this product became very popular and opened the next stage of GUI development.

Mainstream Era

Here comes the time of PC popularization among the common people. Microsoft made them glad when released easy-to-use consumer-oriented Windows 95 operating system. Through the years Windows 95 was succeeded by Windows 98; and finally Windows ME was the last in the batch Windows 3.x-based operating systems. But what’s with Windows XP, Windows Vista and others? Well, they form the parallel more successful line, evolved from Windows NT 3.1 (1993).

Graphical User Interface

The picture is taken from Wikipedia.

Apple company didn’t fall behind its main competitor and showed wonderful System 7 in 1991. This GUI supported Mac OS series up to Mac OS 8, which in its turn brought the new interface.

Modern Trends

The new millennium is characterized by the boom of portable handheld devices, such as smartphones, MP3 players etc. No one could ignore the changes in IT market, especially the developers of GUI. And we have some results: for example, two most widespread mobile operating systems have already refused the WIMP paradigm – iOS and Android use the type of GUI, based on multi-touch contact with a display; it’s called Post-WIMP.

Graphical User Interface

The picture is taken from Android website.

The other fresh tendency in GUI improvement course is 3D transformation of the graphical entourage. Today true 3D user-interface exists, for example Compiz for X Window System, but the usage should most likely be supposed to be the geek level. However, 3D video cards dissemination popularized the 3D effects: the latest consumer-oriented operating systems are strongly influenced with the trend. Windows 7 and Vista’s Aero interface use 3D rendering for shading and transparency effects. Apple also actively integrates the 3D effects in the windowing system, the latest innovation is Quartz Extreme for Mac OS X.

Aforecited trends gradually form a new direction of the user interface progress. But new developments begin to extend beyond the GUI concept: the fresh tendencies require the whole new post to embrace the theme completely. And I’m planning to be the one who write the article, please, be patient and check for updates.

* * *

If you have anything to add or argue to the post, I would be more than thankful to read it in the comments below.

* * *

About the author:

Art Rivera: Deeply interested in everything connected with Internet, I sincerely suppose the web is the only future reality for the humanity through its inevitable involving into every part of human life. I’m not a great fan of cyberpunk concept, but the world is keeping that certain direction of total connectedness. And of course there should be someone, who can write the history, who would describe and analyze and enter in the record all notable changes and tendencies on the web. Hello, it’s me.

This entry was posted in User Interface. Bookmark the permalink.